GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published April 15, 2005

 

Blue Circle Audio CS Integrated Amplifier

A strange thing happened when Gilbert Yeung dropped off for review the Blue Circle Audio CS integrated amplifier ($1249 USD). My dog, a miniature Schnauzer who’s normally as territorial as they come, quickly decided that Yeung was okay and settled in next to him on the family-room floor. Yeung spoiled her with attention for the remainder of his stay, and I wonder to this day why she placed such immediate trust in him. Maybe she knew that the equipment Yeung was leaving behind would give me countless hours of pleasure over the next few months.

At least from the outside, the Blue Circle CS that Yeung left behind fully embraces the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The brushed stainless-steel front panel is adorned by three large, black wooden knobs, for input selection, balance, and volume. Each knob is adorned with a single chrome dot near the edge to indicate position. The chrome toggle switch on the right turns the unit on and off, while the one between the input selector and balance controls switches in the tape loop. The only other prominent feature on the front panel is the Blue Circle logo in the center, which doubles as the power indicator.

The rear panel is just as sparsely populated: a series of heavy-duty, gold-plated RCA jacks, two pairs of plastic-nut binding posts, and an IEC connector for the power cord. Options include a set of preamp outputs, a remote control, three other types of wooden knobs (oak, natural cherry, or red cherry), and stainless-steel knobs. At a relatively compact 17.5"W x 3.625"H x 8.625"D, the CS fits comfortably on many shelves that larger amps would overwhelm.

Then I looked under the hood, and things really got interesting. Immediately noticeable was the complete lack of circuit boards. The CS is built entirely by hand and wired point-to-point -- unheard of for an amp at this price, unless it’s built overseas by cheap labor. Even more amazing is the quality of the parts. From its Teflon-sheathed, silver-plated copper wiring to its 1% metal-film resistors, the CS is constructed more like its high-end brethren than its modest price would suggest is possible. Another point of interest is the separate power supplies and transformers for the preamp and power-amp sections. But what really caught my attention was the 60,000F of filter capacitance available to the power amp. This is 50% more capacitance than my Chiro C-300 power amplifier has available for three channels at 140W each -- but the Blue Circle needs to supply only 50W each to two channels. Some might consider this overkill; I call it awesome. You’ll never have to worry that the CS might run out of gas due to an inadequate power supply. I wish a few other components I have around the house were built this well.

Setup of an amp like the CS is about as simple as it comes. In my case, it consisted of plugging a pair of Audio Magic interconnects from my Adcom GCD-600 into the back and another pair for my Sony DVP-S755 SACD player. For most of the review I was using an ancient Sanyo TP-1030 turntable with a Shure cartridge -- an inelegant but surprisingly effective way to spin vinyl. Late in the review cycle, I replaced the Sanyo with a Music Hall MMF-5. As the CS lacks a phono section, I installed between turntable and amp an inexpensive phono preamp that I keep around for such occasions. It’s not as good as the phono section of my regular preamp, but it’ll do in a pinch. The output is routed to a pair of Silverline Sonatina loudspeakers via Analysis Plus Oval 12 speaker cables.

Listening sessions

It was a good day to listen to music, save for the rattling of the window screens behind me. I’d been literally snowed in by 2" of snow. It wasn’t the snow so much as the 40mph winds, which piled the snow from the fields behind me into drifts high enough to cover my fence. It’s on days like this that I love to sit and spin LPs and CDs all day long. I’m not going anywhere for a while, so I may as well enjoy some music and do a little writing.

One of my favorite acquired tastes is Cassandra Wilson. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately listening to Glamoured [CD, Blue Note 81860], probably her best outing since 1995’s New Moon Daughter [CD, Blue Note 8 32861 2]. Her rhythmic cover of Dylan’s "Lay Lady Lay" is one of the more interesting songs on the album, though I suspect some purists will object. For its part, the CS delivered everything I asked of it, with sharp transients and pinpoint imaging of the heavily percussive backdrop arrayed across the soundstage. Then Wilson does a 180, following "Lay Lady Lay" with the ballad "Crazy." Her voice came through with spectacular clarity and "air," and the kick-drum backbeat was so solid and exceptionally well controlled that I could feel the thump in my chest. Few would believe that that bass line was coming from a compact 50Wpc integrated amp.

The reissue of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on SACD [Island B0001478-40] was a happy event -- this album has always been a favorite in my house. The remastering is perhaps a bit hot in the upper frequencies, but is otherwise as clean and detailed as you could expect from an early-1970s recording. My favorite track is now the acoustic version of "Candle in the Wind." I’ve grown tired of the heavily overplayed electronic version; the acoustic take is more open, honest, and natural, and hence, in my opinion, a better backdrop for the lyrics. The CS conveyed this with spectacular transparency and detail in the strumming of the guitar chords that make the music come alive.

My listening notes for Rebecca Pidgeon’s Retrospective [Chesky SACD242] echoed these thoughts. The sense of immediacy of Pidgeon’s voice on "Spanish Harlem" was more akin to that of the Cayin TA-30 tube amp I’ve used as a reference for the last year or two, while the level of transparency was more what would be expected from amps costing much more than the CS. So many solid-state amps these days are so uninvolving that it’s refreshing to listen to one that is, particularly one that costs only $1249.

Moving on to Mobile Fidelity’s SACD reissue of Walter Susskind and the St. Louis Symphony’s recording of Holst’s The Planets [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4005] brought up the issue of scale. The CS was able to push hard and fast through the delivery of Mars while maintaining a separation of instruments. More important, when the work progressed into Venus, the CS showed amazing finesse with the presentation of the softer chorus of strings. And the amp’s overall transparency made the chimes in Mercury, and again in Jupiter, astonishingly clear.

I then laid some vinyl on the turntable, in the form of George Winston’s December [Windham Hill C-1025]. All Music calls this "the mother of all solo instrumental albums," and I concur. Winston’s hauntingly beautiful piano arrangements of "Carol of the Bells," "Night," and others are flawlessly performed and produced to create a single coherent album that demands silence and respect from the listener. The impact is further enhanced by the rare system that can convey the immediacy, intimacy, and emotion of Winston’s performances. The Blue Circle CS played its part in my system by simply getting out of the way and allowing the music to come through. Transparency is all-important with such recordings; happily, the CS succeeded brilliantly in this respect.

Comparison

The Blue Circle CS replaced my modified Cayin TA-30 tube amp ($899) for the course of the review. Both amps are beautifully made and, with the exception of the TA-30’s tube-bias circuit, are entirely hand-built and wired point-to-point. They also share a certain simplicity of design, eschewing bells and whistles in favor of quality parts and construction. In my experience, this almost always pays a positive return. That Blue Circle can produce the CS in North America at a price point close to that of the Cayin, which is made with much cheaper labor in China, is amazing.

Both amps sounded smooth through the upper frequencies, though the Cayin, powered by four EL34 tubes, couldn’t quite match the Blue Circle’s frequency extension. Both have stiff enough power supplies that, within the limits of their rated power output, running out of gas was never a problem. Nor was low-frequency control, sometimes an issue with my Silverline speakers, ever a great concern -- both amps provided ample control to maintain clean bass response free of excessive bloom. In this regard, the Cayin had a slightly more pronounced presence in the midbass, where the Blue Circle was more precise and controlled. The CS was somewhat better at specific image placement across the soundstage, whereas the TA-30 traded some of this for a little extra depth.

The Cayin’s tubes are obviously the single largest contributor to the differences in sound between it and the Blue Circle. They provide that presence through the midrange for which tubes are so famous, and which basically defines the Cayin’s sonic signature. The two amps’ sounds are so fundamentally different that the choice between them largely comes down to the hearer’s preference: tubes or solid-state? I could be happy with either in my system for a long time to come. As different as they are, they’re equally good, each having its own particular strengths. Considering how impressed I’ve been with the TA-30 since I first heard it well over a year ago, this is heaping high praise on the CS.

Conclusion

I’ve heard many solid-state megabuck amps over the last several years that have the power to drive bridge pilings but lack the finesse to convincingly convey music to the listener. The Blue Circle CS is a welcome departure from that trend, delivering a balanced presentation that’s never etched or sterile, like that of so many of the current crop of powerful home-theater amps. The CS presents an involving musical experience that few amps in the $1000 to $1500 range can approach. But considering that relatively low price, you might wonder what I’d change about the Blue Circle CS.

Nothing at all.

...Jeff Van Dyne

Price of equipment reviewed


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